Before there is the star in the East which in Matthew’s account guides the Magi to Christ, there is the burning desert sun of St. John the Baptist preaching preparation and repentance.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus recognizes in John the Baptist the spiritual return of the prophet Elijah – one of ancient Israel’s greatest prophets, whose resume is highlighted in the first reading from the book of Sirach. And it is not a resume of subtlety!
This prophet of God was one of the most intense of all the prophets. A zealous defender of the Jewish faith in the midst of what he saw as the corruption of kings and rulers, he was no shrinking violet. He not only spoke against false prophets and corrupt leaders, his words were like fire which consumed them; he shattered their leadership (symbolized by the staff) by his testimony and he called down fire from heaven to prove that the Lord God was real and the pagan gods were not. And at the end of his life, the legend was that he was taken into heaven by a fiery chariot!
There was nothing subtle about this man! Nor was there anything subtle about his suffering. Elijah endured great hardship throughout his ministry – often having to flee for his life from kings, queens and leaders he denounced for their corruption.
The life of John the Baptist was quite similar. He was imprisoned and then beheaded by King Herod after John denounced him for his corruption. The parallels between Elijah and John are presented together to enhance their common message of justice. Jesus himself, in the Gospel, reminds us that he will share their fate – to be rejected by those in political authority and many of the religious authorities of his day and also brutalized and executed as an enemy of the Roman state.
As we continue our Advent journey, we’re reminded that God’s coming is not only about beautiful creches and singing angles – and even less about gluttonous consumerism. It is about mercy and justice for the poor and oppressed. The coming of God’s kingdom means that the corrupt kingdoms of earth must give way – whether those kingdoms are at the heights of political power or the depths of our own hearts.
Advent is also a hopeful time – because it is also a reminder that the God who loved us so much as to become one of us, has endured our pains with us, and is the victor over corruption, sin and death.
God give you peace!